|Edith on left, in front of her mother
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The first Christmas I remember, nearly sixty-five years ago, was a wondrous season for us four stair-stepped preschoolers. Our small, safe world was mostly centered around Daddy and Mama, who knew everything and could do everything.
But holidays brought Aunt Annie, Mama's youngest, schoolteacher sister. Mama had helped her through school on her teacher's wages. Now Mama was married to a struggling farmer, beset by some ogre called a mortgage, only mentioned after we kids were supposedly asleep. So Aunt Annie brought much of Christmas in her big brown suitcase.
To begin with, she had time to play with us. She played patty-cake with baby Fred, then took tow-headed, chubby Ernest, curly-headed Lisbus Anne and big sister Ede out from under foot to play "fox and geese" in the snow. That gave Mama a chance to make pies and cookies and set bread to rise, while the baby slept.Mama only had time to tell us stories Sunday afternoon, but Aunt Annie sang the songs and told the stories she'd used in her classroom, every evening.
The day before Christmas, Daddy set up the tree in one corner of the living room. Aunt Annie had helped us string popcorn. Mama brought out the box of ornaments, and we decorated the tree on Christmas Eve. We hung up our long tan stockings on a line behind the Round Oak heater, said our prayers, and were tucked into bed pretty early.
The next morning, each stocking was knobby with walnuts, some hard candy, an orange, a banana, and a real store-bought toy -- perhaps a ball on a rubber string for the baby, a top for Ernest, and dolls with china heads for us girls. The cookies and milk we had set out for Santa were gone. Instead, there was a note from Mrs. Santa warning us girls to take better car of this year's dolls. How could she have known about the cracked-off noses, the ones left out in the rain, or slung by one limp leg as a weapon in a quarrel?
We ate those delicious bananas for breakfast, taking small bites to make them last. Oddly, the three grown-ups each had one too. We watched Daddy dress the plump hen he had culled from the flock. Mama stuffed it and put it in the big, black range oven. Then she and Aunt Annie peeled squash and potatoes and turnips, chopped cabbage, cooked the cranberries that came out of the brown suitcase, whipped rich Guernsey cream for the pumpkin pies. I set the silver carefully on the white damask tablecloth.
After dinner, instead of going back out to the barns, Daddy sat down by the fire and read the real Christmas story from Luke in the big family Bible. Then we sang Away in a Manger, and other carols, while Aunt Annie pumped the wheezy old organ. Then we opened the gifts that had appeared under the tree. There was a blouse or an apron apiece for us girls with the very same daisies that had been on Mama's favorite summer house dress, and little flannel shirts from one of Daddy's shirts that had worn through the sleeves, for the boys. And there was something else for each of us -- a comb, a mirror, a box of ribbon candy from the aunt and uncle who couldn't come. Later in the week we would go in the sleigh to visit our two grandmas in Rushford.
There have been many happy holidays since, but none happier. We four had no idea that we were "poor," for we were rich in the things that mattered. Since that day, Mother and Dad conquered that mortgage, despite the depression that followed the crash of '29. We four grew up; now we are the grandmas and grandpas, the aunts and uncles, and our children or grandchildren, nieces and nephews are growing up in a vastly different world. But still we can join together in anticipating the day:
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.